John Edwards dropped out of the presidential race Wednesday afternoon, ending a spirited underdog bid that was watered down by his distant third finish in the South Carolina primary on Saturday.
The decision leaves Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to battle it out in the increasingly competitive and bitter Democratic contest.
Edwards, a former North Carolina senator and two-time White House candidate, had pledged to stay in the race through the convention despite suffering losses to Clinton and Obama in every early voting state. He had even hoped to benefit from the intra-party bickering of his rivals, and had banked on a strong performance in his home state of South Carolina, where he won in the 2004 primary, to give his campaign a lift before Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, when 24 states hold primaries and caucuses for both parties.
Even after he placed third there behind Clinton, he pledged to soldier on, putting campaign staff on the ground in select Feb. 5 states. But with the odds getting longer and longer, the former senator plans to formally pull out of the race at 1 p.m. ET in New Orleans, where he already had scheduled a speech on poverty, according to his advisers.
He made the announcement with his wife and three children at his side. Then he was expected to work with Habitat for Humanity at the volunteer-fueled rebuilding project Musicians’ Village, an adviser said. With that, Edwards’ campaign will end the way it began 13 months ago — with the candidate pitching in to rebuild lives in a city still ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Edwards embraced New Orleans as a glaring symbol of what he described as a Washington that didn’t hear the cries of the downtrodden.
Edwards realized he had “no real path to the nomination and it was time to step aside,” spokesman Mark Kornblau said, adding that the decision was made within the last 48 hours.
He will not “endorse anyone at the moment,” aides told FOX News.
With Edwards out of the race, Obama and Clinton are already in a head-to-head battle for Super Tuesday states. Obama was set to campaign Wednesday in Colorado with Caroline Kennedy, President Kennedy’s daughter who with Sen. Edward Kennedy endorsed the Illinois senator after his South Carolina victory.
Clinton meanwhile was campaigning in Arkansas and Georgia, while her husband had events in Illinois, Oklahoma and Colorado.
Though Edwards at one point in the campaign aggressively went after Clinton, one senior aide told FOX News that Edwards’ exit from the race could end up benefiting the Clinton campaign, since Edwards and Clinton have split the white vote in previous contests.
Clinton said Wednesday after hearing the news she would be “reaching out to everyone who did support Senator Edwards.”
“John is a friend of mine and he was a colleague in the Senate and I have the highest regard for him, and I’m really admiring of what he’s done to make sure poverty was on the agenda here in America,” she said.
Edwards’ campaign all along was built on appealing to middle-class sympathies, while often vilifying corporate America. He made poverty the signature issue of both his presidential campaigns, and he led a four-day tour to highlight the issue in July.
He waged an energetic top-tier campaign against the two better-funded rivals, even as he dealt with the stunning blow of his wife’s recurring cancer. In a dramatic news conference last March, the couple announced that the breast cancer she thought she had beaten had returned, but they would continue the campaign.
Their decision sparked a debate about family duty and public service. But Elizabeth Edwards remained a forceful advocate for her husband, and she was often surrounded at campaign events by well-wishers and emotional survivors cheering her on.
Kornblau said the decision to drop out had nothing to do with Elizabeth Edwards’ health.
Democratic strategist Bob Beckel told FOX News the decision to exit probably boiled down to a matter of money, with the difficulty he likely was having fundraising after disappointing finishes.
Edwards did place second in the Iowa leadoff caucuses Jan. 3, and was the first Democratic candidate to offer a plan for universal health care, and the first to call on Congress to pull funding for the war. He led the charge that lobbyists have too much power in Washington and need to be reigned in.
But the themes were eventually adopted by other Democratic presidential candidates — and even a Republican, Mitt Romney, echoed the call for an end to special interest politics in Washington.
Edwards’ rise to prominence in politics came amid just one term representing North Carolina in the Senate after a career as a trial attorney that made him millions. He was on Al Gore’s short list for vice president in 2000 after serving just two years in office. He ran for president in 2004, and after he lost to John Kerry, the nominee picked him as a running mate.
Kerry endorsed Obama in this year’s race.
FOX News’ Serafin Gomez, Steve Brown and Cristina Corbin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.